Assorted

The “Force” behind bad statistics

Statistics don’t always mean what they seem to mean. For example, according to figures released by Statistics Canada some years back, there are 20,000 Jedi in Canada. In addition, there are 53,000 in New Zealand, 70,000 in Australia, and a startling 390,000 in the United Kingdom!

If you’re not a fan of Star Wars, you might not have heard of the Jedi. In this series of science fiction films – eight so far – Jedi “knights” wield the good power of the “Force” to fight against those who would seek to destroy the universe and enslave it to evil. It’s a weird sort of Eastern mystical “Force” where both good and evil originate in the same source.

By now you’ve probably spotted the problem with the Statistics Canada census. 20,000 Canadians claim to believe in a religion – “Jediism” – that exists only in movies. How can that make any sense?

Earnest idiots

If you’re Derek Evans, director of the United Church-affiliated Naramatha Centre in B.C., you see calling yourself a Jedi as “part of a journey…discovering the powers that rest within,” and how to use those powers to take care of the ones you love.1 Derek Evans is probably a bit too serious.

Chris Brennan had a different take on the whole thing. As president of the Australian Star Wars Appreciation Society, he didn’t think the census details were quite accurate. He estimated that of the 70,000 Aussies who claimed to be Jedi, no more than 5,000 or so were “true hard-core people that would believe the Jedi religion carte blanche.”2 Chris Brennan didn’t quite get it either.

Messing with the survey

But for most of the thousands of “Jedis” there was a much simpler explanation – these people didn’t take the census seriously. Prior to the Canadian census, a Denis Dion posted a message on the Canadian Ski Patrol message board urging people to list their religion on the upcoming census as Jedi. He claimed that if 10,000 Canadians were to do this, then Jedi would become a “fully recognized and legal religion.” This message, circulated by Dion and others, obviously made the rounds, and 20,000 people joined in on the stunt.

What was the motivation? If you can believe the folks at Wikipedia, somebody in New Zealand thought that asking someone’s religion was a nosy question that didn’t deserve an honest answer. As well, some people just don’t really have a religion that they believe in strongly so they don’t know what religion to check off on their census forms.

Lightsaber sales still down

So what’s the moral of the story? With more than 500,000 people worldwide claiming to be Jedi, what can we learn from this bizarre tale?

Simply this: sometimes if a statistic seems unbelievable, it probably is.

We need to be skeptical when we’re told the results of surveys. For a survey to be accurate, it needs to be taken seriously, and it needs to be something that people are willing to answer. When answering surveys, people don’t like to appear foolish so they may offer opinions even when they don’t know anything about what’s being asked. And they are often unwilling to give up personal information yet unwilling to say this. In four different countries people were either unwilling to tell the statistics offices their real religion because it was too personal, or just weren’t taking the question seriously.

When we’re outnumbered, and surveys tell us that very few people believe a fetus is “human,” or that most people support euthanasia, we should take it with a grain of salt. Those who oppose abortion are unlikely to tell pollsters their true opinions because their answers are politically incorrect and seen as foolish, and those answering the surveys don’t want to seem foolish. They’re often unwilling to give an honest answer.

So when you’re faced with impossible statistics, with insurmountable odds, maybe the best thing to do is to simply laugh. That’s what the BBC did when it reported on the 390,000 Jedi supposedly living in the United Kingdom. You see, if there really are that many Jedi in the U.K. it’s only a matter of time until sales of lightsabers start to sky rocket3. And when we’re faced with impossible odds and improbable statistics, we can laugh boldly, because we have a power greater than statistics and far stronger than the Force to lend us aid.

Endnotes

1 Globe and Mail, May 14, 2003
2 The New Zealand Herald “Jedi order lures 53,000 disciples” www.nzherald.co.nz, August 8, 2002
3 “Census returns of the Jedi,” 13 February, news.bbc.co.uk


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